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Pa. looks to expand free COVID-19 testing, and Philly implements a few business-aid measures

Pennsylvania will begin efforts to increase free, available-to-all testing across the state.

A man speaks with a Cooper Healthcare employee at a drive up COVID-19 test site in Camden on Wednesday, November 25.
A man speaks with a Cooper Healthcare employee at a drive up COVID-19 test site in Camden on Wednesday, November 25.Read moreDAVE HERNANDEZ / Freelance

The coronavirus surge showed signs of possibly slowing in Philadelphia, officials said — though they were waiting for post-Thanksgiving numbers. The statewide news Tuesday was grimmer: Pennsylvania reported its highest single-day death count since May and the governor warned hospital intensive-care units are projected to run out of beds this month.

“That won’t just affect COVID patients; it will harm anyone who needs lifesaving treatment, and will exhaust our health care professionals,” Gov. Tom Wolf wrote on Twitter on Tuesday morning. “Please do what you can to slow the spread of COVID.”

California’s governor issued a similar warning Monday, saying the state’s ICU beds were 75% occupied and could be completely full by mid-December. Concern about hospital capacity continued across the country, from Tennessee to Minnesota to New Mexico, with more than 96,000 coronavirus patients in U.S. hospitals as of Monday, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

Nearly 158,000 new cases were reported nationwide Tuesday, according to Johns Hopkins University. The United States has logged more than 13.5 million cases in total. Some testing and data reporting have been delayed in the last several days because of Thanksgiving.

Philadelphia announced measures Tuesday aimed at aiding businesses hit hard by the pandemic, and Pennsylvania said it would increase coronavirus testing availability statewide.

Pennsylvania reported 5,676 newly confirmed cases and 4,631 people hospitalized Tuesday. The state was averaging more than 6,500 new cases a day, a slight drop compared with late last week, according to an Inquirer analysis.

After a few days of below-average death tolls, the state reported 180 coronavirus deaths Tuesday, the highest daily number recorded since May 14.

New Jersey reported 4,661 cases and 90 deaths. The state was averaging more than 4,000 new cases a day.

By Monday, 3,129 New Jersey coronavirus patients were hospitalized, a 28% increase from two weeks ago. It’s the highest number of hospitalized patients in more than six months, but still well below pandemic highs set back during the spring.

“We need all hands on deck to beat back the second wave,” Gov. Phil Murphy wrote on Twitter. “Mask up. Social distance. Wash your hands. Be smart.”

In Philadelphia, the surge showed signs of slowing down, Public Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said Tuesday, including a decrease in the percentage of tests coming back positive. But he cautioned that the number of new cases each day remains “extremely high” and that it is too soon to tell whether Thanksgiving gatherings resulted in a wave of infections. There was a drop in testing because of last week’s holiday, though it was preceded by an increase in testing as people rushed to get tested before the holiday, Farley has said.

The city reported 601 newly confirmed cases on Tuesday. For the week that ended Saturday, the city saw an average of 606 new cases per day, down from 894 the week before.

Additionally, testing positivity rates have fallen, with 9.4% of tests coming back positive last week, compared with 10.6% the previous week and 11.7% the week before.

“We are seeing a declining trend in the past couple weeks. That’s clearly better news,” Farley said at a virtual news conference, speculating that it could be partly because people are taking new precautions in recognition of the surge.

As businesses continue to struggle, Mayor Jim Kenney on Tuesday announced new measures aimed at helping them weather the pandemic by giving them breaks or delays on paying city taxes and fees.

“Rest assured that, within the constraints of the city’s own budget, we will be looking at new ways to provide relief,” Kenney said at a virtual news conference.

Restaurants, for instance, won’t have to include square footage that has been closed to customers because of the indoor dining ban when calculating their use and occupancy tax, the mayor said.

Businesses will also be allowed to revise their income estimates for the year, potentially lowering their expected tax payments.

And the city is creating a new payment agreement plan for businesses to pay their taxes in installments. No down payment will be required. The option will only be available to businesses that were not previously delinquent on their city taxes. Business owners must contact the Department of Revenue to start an agreement plan, Kenney said.

Last, businesses that use city trash services can delay their Dec. 31 scheduled payment until June.

With two vaccines nearing Food and Drug Administration approval, Farley said the city may begin distributing its first round of the drugs by mid-December.

“I’m very optimistic about 2021,” he said. “We just need to get there safely.”

Statewide, successful contact tracing has continued to decline as case numbers have increased.

Contact tracers were able to reach only 13% of the 44,525 people diagnosed between Nov. 15 and 21, and are now attempting to contact just 21% of people within 48 hours of diagnosis.

With tracers overwhelmed, state health officials continue encouraging people to download an app that will provide notification if they spend 15 minutes or more in close proximity with any other app user who has tested positive for the virus. The app, COVID Alert PA, was recently made available to people ages 13 to 17 with parental consent.

At the same time, the state is aiming to increase access to free coronavirus tests for anyone who wants one. The Department of Health will open temporary testing clinics in 61 counties, including Delaware County, over the next three months.

The state will not open clinics in the six counties — including Montgomery, Bucks, Chester, and Philadelphia — with their own health departments, said Wolf and Michael Huff, the state’s director of testing and contact tracing.

Each of the drive-through and walk-in sites will be able to test as many as 450 people per day on a first-come, first-served basis, Huff said. It will be free and open to any resident age 3 or older, regardless of whether they have symptoms.

The first round of this testing will begin Wednesday in Bedford, Mifflin, Northampton, and Tioga Counties, which have seen some of the state’s most severe increases in cases, and a site in Butler County will open Friday. Testing will be available from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Sunday at these sites.

The strike teams setting up the clinics will move to five different sites the following week, Wolf said.

The governor said health officials hope the new testing initiative will reduce hospitalizations and deaths.

“Every day, COVID continues to spread, and every day our numbers continue to rise,” Wolf said. “That puts our health care system at risk and it puts our health care workers at risk.”

Staff writers Jason Laughlin and Rob Tornoe contributed to this article.